Amid the chaos and confusion of Capitol Hill this week, one prevailing trend emerged: Republican leaders are embracing the party’s hard-line position on illegal immigration.
While the battle over spending continues, GOP lawmakers have chosen to align with the conservative posture that took root in the party with President Trump, a development that is causing consternation among some Republican dissenters.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other GOP lawmakers repeatedly cast the spending fight as Democrats displaying more loyalty to undocumented immigrants than Americans — a wager that the nativist leanings that propelled Trump to power will energize their political base in this year’s midterm elections.
“What has been shoehorned into this discussion is an insistence that we deal with an illegal-immigration issue,” McConnell said Friday in a speech to the Senate.
That strategy marked the latest chapter in a decades-long realignment for a party that championed outreach to the fast-growing Latino population as recently as the George W. Bush administration. Those overtures vanished in the presidential politics of 2016 as Trump steamrolled former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who both espoused a more welcoming approach to immigrants.
“We just had an election where this is a key issue,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. “I think the people spoke loud and clear.”
Some Republicans worried, as they did even before Trump’s rise, that this will harm the party in the long term as the country becomes more ethnically diverse. In the short term, it has complicated bipartisan spending talks, revived GOP tensions and left lawmakers without a sweeping deal on an issue that has long vexed Congress.
“Yeah, that’s a frustration,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said in an interview Friday. Flake, a centrist, was lamenting that the Senate has yet to vote on a deal to protect immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, despite what he said was a promise from McConnell to do so this month.
While the Senate has not yet taken an immigration vote, McConnell delivered red meat for the conservative base on immigration. He lambasted Democrats for withholding support for a month-long government spending bill because talks had yet to produce a deal to protect those immigrants, known as “dreamers.”
McConnell repeated the term “illegal immigration” several times in his floor remarks — punctuating the words for emphasis. It was unusual for the leader to use that phrase for young undocumented immigrants. Several times when McConnell said “illegal immigration” Thursday night, Flake, seated a few rows behind him, visibly grimaced.
In recent public comments, McConnell also has used the term “chain migration” to refer to the practice of U.S. citizens sponsoring extended family members for green cards. Many Democrats say it should be dropped because they consider it a derogatory term to describe legal, family-based immigration.
In a tweet Friday, Trump used similar words, saying Democrats “want illegal immigration and weak borders. Shutdown coming? We need more Republican victories in 2018!”
Hours ahead of the shutdown deadline, GOP aides, lawmakers and other officials huddled in an endless stream of private meetings, deciding to brand the impasse the “#SchumerShutdown” after the top Senate Democrat, Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). A website launched by congressional Republicans, SchumerShutdown.com, features a video referencing Democratic support for changes in immigration policy.
The term had been hatched earlier Thursday during a conference call of staffers for House and Senate GOP leaders. Brendan Buck, the top communications adviser to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), told his colleagues as the call began that they should start using the term.
The failure so far to produce an immigration deal was the main driver of the Democratic resistance to passing another short-term spending bill, even as some Democrats tried to emphasize other concerns. Democrats and Republicans have struggled to come up with a framework to protect dreamers in exchange for beefing up border security and tightening citizenship requirements.
One reason those efforts have sputtered, some Republicans say, is the powerful influence of hard-right immigration activists on the president, who is key to any deal. For example, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who is working with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to broker a compromise, has grown frustrated with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a more hawkish figure who has Trump’s ear.
Cotton, Graham said, is becoming the “Steve King of the Senate,” a reference to the Iowa congressman who has been at the forefront of the hard-right movement on immigration. “If we keep making demands that are just not realistic in phase one, we’ll never get there,” he added.
Cotton shot back that King knows how to win in Iowa but Graham, who ran for president, does not.
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a longtime champion of an immigration bill with a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants, said that when it comes to Republicans, “immigration is the glue that keeps them together. And you’re going to need a powerful weapon to break that.”
In McConnell’s orbit, there is a sense that much of the Senate Republican Conference is closer to Cotton and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) on immigration than it is to Graham, even if they are not as vocal about it.
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of a think tank that advocates reduced immigration, said that he has detected a change in McConnell’s rhetoric over time.
“McConnell has definitely become more hawkish on immigration,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s necessarily an evolution in his own perspective as much as it is a change in the party.”
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the senator has been an advocate of legal immigration and strong border security for more than a decade.
In the House, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the Freedom Caucus chairman, said this week that GOP leaders have agreed to count votes for an immigration bill that would allow dreamers to apply for temporary legal status and end the ability of new citizens to bring relatives to the United States. No Democrats support the legislation
The way that the Republican Party has addressed immigration has shifted. President George W. Bush was a champion of immigration overhaul who carried 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, according to exit polls.
“We worked closely with him,” recalled Frank Sharry, the director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice.
In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shifted from a stance as a pro-immigration governor of Massachusetts to promoting “self-deportation” as a means to reduce the number of illegal immigrants. He suffered with Latino voters at the ballot box, winning just 27 percent.
And then came Trump in 2016, who opened his campaign by accusing Mexican immigrants of being “rapists” and campaigned on the promise of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But demographic trends, particularly in regions where the Hispanic population is booming, could spell trouble for the GOP if its positions alienate Latino voters.
“No one has repealed the demographic trends in the country, which means that any party that hopes to do well in elections in the 21st century is going to have to do better among people who are demographically different from the current Republican base,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
Ayres has worked for Rubio, who was a central player in the 2013 immigration talks that produced an immigration bill that failed in the House. Rubio struggled to defend his record on immigration when he ran for president in 2016.
He has not been a principal in any of the various groups around the Capitol pushing an immigration plan this time around.
In Democratic politics, immigration has been a major driver, particularly since Trump’s election. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who represents a deep-blue stretch of Northern California, said that at a recent town hall he had asked how many people in the room were concerned about their immigration status, and at least 300 people in a crowd of 500 had raised their hands.
“It doesn’t hurt the Democrats in the short term,” Khanna said of the prospects of a shutdown. He said it was a “much bigger risk for Democrats if we don’t get DACA,” referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump ended.
At times, Trump has sounded open to a deal with Democrats on immigration. On other occasions, he has pulled back, siding with aides and lawmakers who have warned against.
Lawmakers have been left to guess where he stands. Until they figure it out, Republicans have mostly concluded that the safest political ground on immigration is near to Trump.
“I don’t think it’s a narrative that we’re trying to create,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said of the argument Republican leaders are making about a possible shutdown. “It’s a narrative that is real.”
Erica Werner and David Weigel contributed to this report.
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